The 2013 massive hit Secretly, Greatly tells the story of three North Korean spies sent to a small town in South Korea as sleeper agents, waiting for the call of their mission towards the reunification of Korea. One is a ruthless, genius lieutenant decoying as the village idiot, the second is the general’s son playing a wanna-be rock star, while the third is an ambitious young soldier posing as a high school student. Superstar Kim Soo Hyun leads the cast, and that usually is enough motivation for most to hit play. Let’s break it down.
The movie starts off the action with Lieutenant Won Ryu Hwan (Kim Soo Hyun) receiving his mission from boss Colonel Kim Tae Won (Son Hyun Joo). As part of an elite group of North Korean spies, the top soldier is tasked to infiltrate the South, gathering information in the guise of an idiot until the day his pager beeps for his final mission. Ryu Hwan (now called Bang Donggu) does nothing half-baked, creating a calculated characterization of an imbecile, from his daily tumbling off the roof, regular public pisses and dumps, and general lack of basic intelligence. For two years he is mocked by the silence of his pager, connected to his beloved country only through his regular visits from fellow informant Seo Sanggu and the daily letters he writes to his mother.
Donggu’s routinary life gets a jolt when two fellow spies arrive in his territory. Rhee Hae Rang (Park Ki Woong), son of a high ranking official now posing as idol wannabe Kim Minsu, moves into the apartment steps away. Days later, young soldier Rhee Haejin (Lee Hyun Woo) drops by too, further fueling Donggu’s suspicions that something massive is brewing. True enough, the power play between the two Koreas have switched and the South demands the names and locations of the North’s agents. Ordered to cut their losses, Kim Tae Won sends one message to all his agents: the secret, great mission to suicide.
As their fellow agents blindly follow their mother country’s order, Donggu stalls, wanting to make sure first that his mother is taken care of. Minsu follows suit mostly because he is not the fanatic his father wants him to be, while Haejin also trails closely, revealing that his loyalty is with Donggu.
Action-packed, cheeky, and LOL-level funny, Secretly Greatly delivers a full story packed with twists and turns. If you’ve come to see the movie desiring a sincerely serious North Korean spy drama, you obviously disregarded the premise. Although with its share of misses and obvious diversions from fact, the movie makes hits with the energetic stylized fight scenes, both intelligent and toilet humor wisecracks, deliberate pacing, and thoughtful acting. Soo Hyun is impressive in his acting range, building from comic idiocy to somber tragedy as the film progresses. He successfully balances his simpleton persona with the ripped form he hides under that green track suit. Even his seeming ruthlessness was just another layer of his character, revealed when his loyalty cracks.
In the end, loyalty may just be the central theme to the film. Even for fanatic North Korean spies, their humanity persists, loyalties waver and true allegiances seep through the cracks. The warmth of a mother, a brother, a friend, a childhood hero, and a neighbor in need can melt the most hardened of hearts.
Photo and video credits to owner.